House Again Challenges Bush Cuba Policy

Renewing an annual battle, the House again challenged the Bush administration's Cuba (search) policy Tuesday with a vote to lift recently imposed restrictions on travel by Cuban-Americans to their homeland.

The Republican-held House also defied a possible presidential veto by voting to stop the administration from carrying out rules, promulgated last year, that promote competition from private contractors for federal work.

The 225-174 vote on Cuba, after a heated debate, would block the administration from carrying out rules that went into effect on June 30 to allow Cuban-Americans to visit families in Cuba only once every three years for a maximum 14 days.

The amendment to a $90 billion Transportation and Treasury Department (search) spending bill for 2005 would restore a system in which Cuban-Americans could visit families once a year and were allowed to apply for special licenses for emergency trips.

"The United States should not be in the business of separating families," argued Rep. Jim Davis (search), D-Fla., the amendment's sponsor.

The White House has warned that President Bush would veto the legislation if it included provisions to weaken Cuba travel sanctions.

That warning was aimed mainly at a broader amendment, which has been approved in previous years but did not come up this time, that would lift travel restrictions to Cuba for all Americans. Chad Kolton, spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the Davis amendment would be evaluated, but the truth was the White House "would not allow anything that would weaken current sanctions."

The Senate Transportation-Treasury bill, still in committee, does include language to lift the travel ban. In past years House and Senate leaders, seeking to avoid veto showdowns with the White House, have removed provisions from the bill that might ease sanctions on Cuba.

The Davis amendment drew an angry response from GOP Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American who represents southern Florida. The proposal, he said, was "soaked in arrogance," backed by people who think they "know better than the members who represent the overwhelming majority of Cuban-Americans in this Congress."

But Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a leader in efforts to open relations with Cuba, said giving families a choice about visiting their relatives was "not arrogance. That is simply embracing freedom."

Before voting on the spending bill Wednesday, the House also might take up amendments to end restrictions on agricultural sales, student exchanges and remittances to relatives in Cuba.

For the second consecutive year, the House approved, by 210-187, an amendment to the spending bill by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., that would force the Office of Management and Budget to rewrite 2003 rules on private-federal competition for federal work.

The rules, aggressively promoted by the administration as a way of making government more efficient and less costly, could lead to the privatization of nearly half the nation's 1.8 million federal jobs.

Democrats and organized labor have argued that the rules are stacked against federal workers and are open to such abuses as contractors cutting health care benefits to submit lower bids.

Van Hollen said privatization was fine "when it is done in a fair and balanced manner" and pointed to changes in the OMB rules made by the Pentagon and other agencies to put competition on a more level playing field.

The OMB, in issuing the veto threat, said barring funds for public-private competition was "akin to mandating a monopoly regardless of the impact on services to citizens and the added costs to taxpayers." Last year the Van Hollen amendment was taken out of the final version of the bill.

The House also approved, 237-162, an amendment by Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. that would bar the use of federal money to contest a 2003 federal court ruling that IBM had discriminated against older workers in adopting a cash balance pension plan.

Traditional pension plans reward workers for sticking with a company by increasing retirement benefits at a faster rate during the last years of service. Because cash balance plans award benefits at a steady rate during a worker's tenure, they tend to benefit younger workers who change jobs more frequently.